Sunday, May 24, 2015

Splice (2009)

Never before have I had such low expectations and been left so wonderfully astounded. Remembering the trailer from when Splice had its US theatrical release in June 2010, I thought I was going in for a shitty horror movie with a cheap novelty in that an escaped genetic experiment would serve in place of the prototypical slasher/killer, but this ploy was merely one facet of the dodecahedron as the film I viewed was much more substantial, offering and eliciting a multitude of genres and emotional responses, respectively.

After two romantically-involved geneticists (Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley) are successful in creating a new type of animal by splicing the DNA from a variety of species, their next project is to incorporate human genes into a similar hybrid. As they find success, scientific curiosity and a lack of ethics lead them to secretly observe and raise their creation. The proverbial offspring matures and develops at an alarming pace and changes the dynamics of the scientists' relationship, and both naturally and unnaturally things go awry when the lab experiment grows in power and intellect.

It's built from the foundation of a scary movie, but Splice spends considerable time as a drama and unorthodox romance with a hint of modern allegory. But even if it doesn't feel like a traditional horror movie for much of its runtime, it certainly boasts horrific, unnerving, and gruesome ideas and imagery. There's a certain continuum of empathy and fear when it comes to the part-human creature, and as biological organisms humans have a visceral reaction to one side of the spectrum or the other. Will genetic engineering offer humanity's crowning achievement or lowest low, mankind's greatest marvel or gravest monstrosity? Sometimes Splice makes the viewer feel one way and sometimes another. The smooth flow of the movie considering its tonal and thematic eclecticism is a large credit to the skill of director and co-writer Vincenzo Natali.

Technically this movie strikes a great balance of CGI, practical effects, and most especially motion capture acting. Andy Serkis always gets a lot of credit for his roles in The Lord of the Rings, King Kong, and the newer Planet of the Apes, but not many other films have striking enough CG characters to merit much attention to this acting niche. Abigail Chu as the pre-adolescent form and Delphine Chanéac as the adult form of the human-chimera hybrid give terrific shape and life to the center role.

Even if highly effective due to taking advantage of viewers' spiritual beliefs, demon and evil spirit movies have been done to death, so the territory explored by Splice is highly welcome. The moral considerations and scientific aura behind genetically engineered mutants and other Plum Island-like conspiracies are the topical fodder that made Splice, on top of everything else it did well, a highly effective product.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Carrie (2013)

Quick and dirty, just like this carefree if placid remake/reinterpretation/whathaveyou, the 2013 cinematic version of Carrie is an updated take for a young audience who probably wouldn't watch '70s horror or read Stephen King. I liked it well enough and appreciate the fact that this classic story is being told once again to new generations regardless of the specific setting or level of care to each and every detail.

Julianne Moore is great as Margaret White and is in striking contrast to her protagonist role in Hannibal (2001), while, although she plays well, Chloë Grace Moretz (Hit-Girl from Kick-ass, 2010, and Kick-ass 2, 2013) doesn't feel quite appropriate as Carrie White. She's too naturally pretty and regularly dressed which requires suspension of disbelief that she could be such an outcast. Her acting isn't bad, but Moretz would have been much better suited in this film as Sue Snell.

There are some worthwhile added scenes in this update including Margaret White giving birth to Carrie, a much more graphic and provoking pig slaughtering scene, and Carrie's classmates recording the shower incident on their phones and subsequently posting the footage on social media. Touches like this make the 2013 Carrie reminiscent of the Evil Dead remake from earlier in the same year in that it updates a classic with a glossy finish for the pure hell of it but has the decency to add a few slightly fresh scenes or ideas. New movie doesn't chill like old movie doesn't chill like Stephen King's novel, but it's enjoyable enough to see if you're a fan of the others or like lukewarm scary movies.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004), Revisited

A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket (narrator/character and pen name of author Daniel Handler) is an excellent series for readers of all ages.  Alliteration, cryptic letters to the editor, absurd yet effective character-reduction, role reversals, diction-enhancing asides, unravelling mysteries of arson, murder, and secret societies... this is storytelling at its finest.  When it comes to children's chapter books, nothing is more captivating and alluring than the tragic quest for answers of the Baudelaire orphans.

Though published between 1999 and 2006, the book series will remain timeless, if only revered by a cult following, due to its high-caliber writing and cleverly ambiguous and occasionally contradictory exposition and setting, but how about that single serving Nickelodeon Movies film from 2004?

When Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events came out in theaters, I was 13 years old, a devout fan of the book series, and disappointed with what I saw on the big screen.  I think a lot of that disappointment stemmed from the fact that they changed and reshuffled plot points from the first three books.  Released shortly after The Grim Grotto, the eleventh of thirteen novels, the tone of the film adaptation was in gross misalignment with the books as the literary story was reaching the pinnacle of its seriousness.  This series probably didn't need a movie, but it got one anyway.  For the studios in 2004, it was probably then or never in regards to a project based on the topically popular books, but fans would have to level with the movie's existence for better or for worse, and I'm glad to say now that although it isn't great it's not as bad as I once thought.

In order to appreciate this movie, one has to understand that it's a one-shot tribute to the book series.  Whereas film franchises like Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings tell the full literary story in multiple installments that parallel the novels, Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events is a solitary artist's homage to its source material.  There was never a chance in hell they could have made 13 Hollywood movies, so in hindsight this approach shows a lot of integrity.  Maybe a BBC or HBO mini-series or something like that might have been feasible, but it was Nickelodeon Movies that obtained the rights to create it.  That's right, the makers of Clockstoppers (2002) and Good Burger (1997).  That fact might have been a death sentence, but this particular project had over 5 and 10 times the budget respectively of the aforementioned films and turned out to be the best live action production Nickelodeon Movies has managed to put out to this day.

Jude Law and Jim Carey are the stars here with Law playing the role of narrator/author Lemony Snicket and Carey playing the villainous Count Olaf, and both contribute a degree of meta-analysis to the film. Jim Carey acting as Count Olaf who is poorly acting while donning various disguises adds a layer of depth to the performance. He's energetic but not in a stereotypical, different-movie-same-Jim-Carey-character kind of way which gives the film freshness but also credibility from an established comedic actor.  Snicket is a difficult role to pin, and the problem is not with Law but the writing/directing around his character.  Jude Law is fine; Snicket's nonchalance of being in dangerous and preposterous situations while writing is part of the humor in having a fully developed narrator who is also part of the greater story.  The books are his first-hand account of the life of the Baudelaire orphans and only made the transition from manuscripts to published novels by way of secret delivery and the aid of his unnamed editor.  In the movie, however, not only does Jude Law voice over certain sections but he also stars visually which makes the presence of a film director all too apparent.  Of course, it's a movie, but to me this was an added layer of depth I did not enjoy.  Lemony Snicket in the frame gives the feeling of documentary, second-hand interpretation, propaganda and the idea that this is perhaps not the shockingly true story of the Baudelaire orphans at all, in turn breaking the immersion needed to fully enjoy a tale of this nature.

The would-be guardians (Justice Straus, Monty, and Josephine) are well-cast (Catherine O'Hara, Billy Connolly, and Meryl Streep respectively) but ultimately have a low impact primarily because each of their characters only reside in one of three stories combined here. Although the movie covers plot events from The Bad Beginning, The Reptile Room, and The Wide Window, it culminates in the stage production of Al Funcoot's The Marvelous Marriage, thereby mirroring the ending of the first novel and providing a relative degree of conclusiveness if only in comparison to the other books' falling actions. As a final sendoff, the credit sequence is fantastic with its gothic, surrealistic animations of the orphans fleeing from the ominous, inescapable force that is Olaf.  In a way, it serves as an epilogue to the film; the Baudelaires move somewhere else, Count Olaf finds them, the story goes on.

While the characters of Violet and Klaus are well-scripted and feel authentic to their novel counterparts, it's for the best that they were played by no-name actors lest this would have been a Dakota Fanning/Haley Joel Osment circa early 2000s shitshow.  The third Baudelaire child, Sunny, the infant who bites things, predictably doesn't make the film transition as well as her siblings but is not downright awful.  Inevitably, a lot of other things just don't transfer well and much of the clever literary charm is simply lost in translation from book to movie.  The characters of Sunny and Lemony Snicket, erraticness of the second and third novel plot inclusions, and much of the humor were struggling points, but the story and everything else is strong enough to make this a movie that ultimately floats, all things considered.

When it comes to film adaptations of novels, I don't think we'll ever again see anything as high-caliber as To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) or The Godfather (1972).  If a movie is serviceable and can add a new viewpoint or an interesting/exciting enough visualization, however, film adaptations are still worthwhile, and Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events manages to accomplish that worthiness if only just barely.  If treated with less care, this very nearly could have been another Mike Meyers The Cat in the Hat (2003), but thankfully it's a decent movie which at least for me didn't spoil the book series in any way.